Vipassana Reflections (Dec. 4-15, 2013): Alur, Karnataka State, India

dhamma_paphulla_vipassana

Here are 18 little reflections on the 10 day meditation retreat I finished about a week ago. It was extremely intense — a real immersion experience both in meditation and in Indian culture. The living circumstances and diet were Spartan. No talking or even eye contact for 10 days. No cell phones or computers, newspapers or TV. We meditated for 10 hours each day using a method that will be explained below. It was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life. I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity. India is wonderful!

I
“Arrival”

Here at last.
This is what brought me to India, I’m convinced.
But how did I get here?
Did I die?
I can’t remember doing that
Or how.
I recall saying goodbye to my loved ones – a wonderful hug from Maggie,
A goodbye kiss from Peggy . . . .
“May you find what you’re looking for,”
She whispered.
“I think you already have.”
So here I am – dead to the world.
Is this what heaven is like?
Or am I in hell or in prison?
I’m determined to find heaven here,
And wherever I land
From now on . . . .

II
“The Vipassana Community”

So many people here,
(about 80 I’d guess)
Young, old, men, women,
Tall, short, slim, heavy,
All but 5 of us brown,
All seeking God.
I am not alone.

III
“The Setting”

It’s quiet here.
Green, brown and dusty,
Run-down, like India,
And very slow.
But there’s a well-kept garden space,
In front of the Meditation Hall.
No golf course beauty though
Or slick railings, winding staircases or polished floors.
Instead there are large patches of dirt,
Stoney paths, chirping birds,
Blood-thirsty mosquitoes,
And sunshine all around.

IV
“Where I Sleep”

I sleep in one of the “Gents Dormitories,”
In bed # 22.
Fifteen cots, each two feet apart.
The beds are pieces of slate,
With a mattress on top, just 2 inches thick,
And a small hard pillow.
A piece of canvas suspended from a rod
Separates each bed.
But nothing filters
The farting, snoring, throat-clearing, belching, spitting, coughing and sneezing.
Still, we somehow manage to sleep
From 9:30 till 4:00.
Already by 3:30
Alarms go off.
Fluorescent tubes ignite.
The farting and throat-clearing begins in earnest,
And the race to the outdoor washstands.
By 4:30 we’re in the meditation hall.
Following our breathing – till 6:30.

V
“Be Happy”

“Be Happy”
That’s the mantram here.
Every notice ends with those words:
“Be Happy!”
It’s a strange, forbidden thought for me
Who fears happiness,
(I’ve been told)
Who’s blind to the happiness already bestowed
Here,
And who longs for the pains of hell.
What if I realized heaven is indeed already mine,
Surrendered to it,
Luxuriated in my body, mind and spirit,
And spurned the hell
The saints have sold me?
What then?
Would I actually see God?
Why this terror before heaven all around?

VI
“The Reason for Unhappiness – and Its Cure”

All life is suffering
Says the Buddha.
But why?
What’s the cause?
Gotama went deep inside
To find out.
It’s because of craving,
He discovered.
Senses encounter sense objects.
Attachments and aversions form.
When inevitably thwarted
Suffering results.
To overcome suffering,
Simply detach!
Become a dispassionate watcher of sensations
Pleasant and unpleasant,
Knowing that each
Is governed by
The Universal Law of Impermanence.
“This too will pass”
Is the salvific mantram.
“I am the Happiest of mortals,”
the Enlightened, Unattached Buddha insisted.

VII
“Where I Eat”

Our mess hall has red concrete floors.
We eat on narrow shelves
Each facing a dingy white wall
Whose Scotch Tape wounds
Cry out for soap or paint.
Thousands have sat here before us
Clattering teaspoons
On stainless steel plates.
Rice and dal
And a sweet thick drink
I can’t identify.
No one speaks or makes eye contact.
Afterwards
We line up to wash our cups and plates
At stone pilas.
Then one by one
We melt back into the darkness
Whence we came
Like moths seeking light.

VIII
“The Menu”

Breakfast
Upma (millet mush)
Or biryani rice
Sprouts
Idles (twice)
Pickled green peppers (available at every meal)
Chai

Lunch:
White rice
Biryani rice
Iragi balls (black millet)
Dal
Chapattis
Sliced cucumbers
2 vegetables: green beans, diced beets, squash, okra, or bitter gourd
Sauce: spinach, tomato and onion,
Buttermilk

Supper/Snack:
Fruit (one piece): watermelon, papaya, or banana
Salted and peppered “puffed rice” with peanuts and cilantro
Chai

IX
“Take Things Hard”

I love living like this
(My kids will laugh)
When I was a Columban
The motto was
“Take things hard.”
I bought into that,
I guess,
And still do.
I like the predictable daily routine,
The rock-hard bed,
Cold “showers” from a bucket,
The same meals repeated.
But time to think,
And meditate
And pray.
What more could I ask?
(Well, maybe not the cold showers.)

X
“How to Meditate”

“Narrow your focus,”
The teacher said,
“To the triangle
Whose base is your upper lip,
With its apex, the top of your nose.
Now do nothing
But breathe.
Just observe your natural breath
For 15 hours.
That’s step one.”

“Step 2 is to spend 10 hours
Focusing on sensations
In the same triangular space –
An itch, a pain, a tingling, throbbing – anything.
Work diligently, ardently, patiently.
This was the Buddha’s path
To enlightenment and liberation,”
The teacher advised.
“It can be yours as well
If you follow his technique.
Doing so, you are bound to succeed,
Bound to succeed.”

“Step 3 is to narrow focus still further.
The triangle shrinks.
Its base remains your upper lip.
But its apex becomes the bottom of your nostrils.
Focus on that mustache area.
Identify the feelings there,
And contemplate it – for 10 hours.”

Now you’re ready for Vipassana itself.
The word means “seeing things as they are,
Not as you want them to be.”
You scan your body
From head to toe
For changing sensations,
For 5 hours in the morning
And 4 in the afternoon.
The point is
To experience life’s impermanence
Where it cannot be denied
Within the framework of your own body,
And so be liberated
From cravings and aversions.
Which like all bodily sensations
Always pass.
Do that for 65 hours.

XI
“The Lotus Position”

The lotus position
Is killing me.
After 15 minutes
The fronts of my thighs
Are throbbing uncontrollably
Like waves on a rough sea
I can actually see the turbulent ripples.
And I still have 45 minutes
(Sometimes and hour and 45 minutes!)
To go!
Towards the end,
Each 60 seconds seems like an hour.
Is this what I must do
For the rest of my life
To achieve enlightenment?
“It’s not about torturing yourself,”
The teacher tells me.
“It’s about self-discipline,
And purification of mind.”
I review my life:
For 16 years I’ve gotten up each day at 4:45
For half an hour of meditation.
For 25 years
I’ve run 4 miles every morning
In cold and snow, heat and rain.
“No pain, no gain,” I’ve always believed.
Then a half hour of spiritual reading.
Three vegetarian meals
When I’d rather eat meat.
Another half hour of meditation at night.
What I need is not more pain.
What I need is the Buddha’s understanding
That the pain already here
And the abundant joy
Are both temporary
Subject to the universal law of impermanence
And destined to pass.
Don’t be attached
To either pain or pleasure.
That’s the lesson
And the purification of mind
My teacher was talking about.
But pardon me;
I’m using a chair.

XIi
“I Hate Vipassana”

It’s day four of our course.
During the last half hour of morning meditation (4:30-6:30)
Something snapped.
I felt like screaming,
“This is just bullshit!”
The chanting had started,
Making it impossible for me
To concentrate on my body scan.
All of a sudden,
I hated everything:
India, Indians, Vipassana Meditation, the chanting,
My hard bed
The food
That’s making me gag.
I don’t understand Vipassana!
Yes, I know it’s about
Facing up to life’ impermanence.
But how many times can you survey your body
For changing sensations
Without screaming about bullshit –
From sheer boredom?
It’s a good thing I still have nearly a week
To recover,
Make sense of this,
And find heaven
Here.

XIII
“I Love Vipassana”

The crisis passed
As quickly as it had come.
This morning
After 3 hours
Of fruitless, distracted, infuriating “meditation,”
A conference with our dour, laconic teacher
Helped me see. . . .
He spoke of the importance of posture
For disciplining the mind.
He asked about mine.
“No problem,” I said,
“I’m old,
I don’t do the lotus position;
I sit in a chair.”
“Hmm . . .” was his pitiless response.
Chastened,
I adopted the lotus configuration
For the next hour.
My legs absolutely throbbed.
At one point
I couldn’t tell my right from my left.
But then I saw:
The Buddha based everything,
I realized,
On what was certain,
From the experience of his own body.
Since that body perfectly mirrored
The entire universe,
And the laws of nature,
Reading it
Was better than reading a whole library of books.
So scanning the body
From crown to toe
Is like journeying among the planets,
Like a history lesson,
Like a review of my own life.
Bodily sensations
Pleasant and painful
Were like all the crises of life
Like all its joys – destined to pass.
The point is however
To awaken the body completely,
To make every single cell
Sensational.
And to do the same
With every moment of life.
“Just observe it all objectively
With perfect equanimity,
Without craving or aversion
Everything will soon pass,”
The teacher said.
“Everything is changing,
Changing
Changing.”
I can hardly wait for this afternoon’s
4 hours of “work.”

XIV
“A Meditation High”

This afternoon
December 11 , 2013
At 2:15
I had a unique experience – for me.
(My teacher would later tell me it’s quite common.)
During the last 15 minutes of meditation (1:00-2:30)
I had been sweeping through
My Vipassana survey of my body,
And had done so quickly
Perhaps 6 times in a row.
I stopped.
And all of a sudden
My entire body was tingling
From head to toe
In mild vibration.
I felt my body was filled with light.
The vibration continued for 15 minutes.
This, I believe,
Was the experience
Of the “Inner body,”
The immanence of the divine
That Eckhart Tolle describes
In The Power of Now.
My Indian teacher however
Warns
Not to treat such experiences
With any more preference
Than dryness, distraction or frustration.
All – the pleasant and the unpleasant –
Are merely sensations.
The point of Vipassana is
To treat all sensations the same:
“With perfect equanimity.”
It’s the nature
Of both pleasant
And unpleasant sensations
In meditation
And in life
To arise and then subside.
It’s fatal to crave and form attachment to the pleasant
And to fear and cultivate aversions to the unpleasant.
(Still, the experience was nice!)

XV
“Outta Gas – again!”

Today – the 7th of the course—towards the end
Of our 7th hour of meditation
(with 3 ½ to go)
I just ran out of gas.
My back ached.
I couldn’t bring myself
To scan my body even one more time,
“From the top of your head, to the tips of your toes;
From the tips of your toes
To the top of your head.”
And then those aversions kicked in again –
To meditation, Indian accents,
Endless translations into Kanada and Pali
And our teacher’s chanting
In that artificially deep voice,
With the weird tones, melodies and cadences
I don’t understand.
Then I realized
My aversions are the point.
It’s sensations like this I’m supposed to identify
And observe objectively.
Life is full of them,
And they are merely feelings – at least until I own them
(as I mistakenly have done again!),
Making them mine
And creating new “samskaras”
(Negative behavior patterns)
In the process.
“Just observe the sensations,
The teacher intoned.
View them objectively
With equanimity
And patience.
Like all sensations,
They will arise
And then disappear.
Don’t attach to them.”
Lesson learned . . .
For now.

XVI
“The Problem with Pleasure”

My teacher says that
Pleasure is good
When it’s shared with others:
A good meal with friends
A game of golf with my sons. . .
But not when it’s sought
For its own sake,
Especially in isolation
(Drinking alone,
That bowl of ice cream for a midnight snack).
Those sorts of “pleasures”
Give rise to craving
And attachment
Which the Buddha teaches are the causes of unhappiness.
I’m afraid all of that is true.
My experience shows:
Unsought pleasures
Have filled my life to overflowing.
The pleasures I’ve sought – for me –
Have been the problem:
Craving when they’re absent,
Disappointment when over.
And then there are those samskaras . . .
So give others pleasure in abundance.
And let life shower you with gifts unsought.
(It always will.)
Otherwise, live simply
Your cup will overflow
Even if nothing extraordinarily delightful
Ever happens again.

XVII
“Self-Denial”

All my life
It’s been preached to me,
“Deny yourself.”
And what a burden it’s been!
Now I see
That responding (not reacting) to impulses
Is intimately connected to
The Universal law of Impermanence
And to my anger and defensiveness.
Impulses are impulses
Whether to take that 2nd piece of cake
Or to make a smart retort.
As sensations they arise and pass away.
Recognizing self-indulgence
As a passing impulse
Helps me identify angry sensations
As impulses too –
To be recognized
And given time to pass –
In order to escape misery.

XVIII
“Conclusion”

This has been
A 10 day
100 hour Meditation
On the Universal Law of Impermanence.
(I.e. on reality’s changing nature
As events constantly rise and pass away),
On the need to face
And accept
The present moment
As it is
and not
As we would like it to be,
With equanimity and calmness.
It has been about
Eradicating (uprooting)
The causes of unhappiness
Located in the sensations
Our bodies constantly produce
As our senses meet
Sense objects.
Eradication happens when
We don’t react or become attached to such sensations,
But simply observe them
With heightened awareness –
Objectively, calmly,
Equanimously.
To accomplish that feat,
We must practice
An hour of mediation
Each morning and evening
Scanning our bodies
“from the top of our heads
To the tip of our toes”
And back,
This establishes a pattern
(Based on experience)
For facing the vicissitudes of daily life
Which is constantly
Changing,
Changing,
Changing.
Remember:
The two wings of the Vipassana bird are
Awareness and
Equanimity.

Published by

Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

5 thoughts on “Vipassana Reflections (Dec. 4-15, 2013): Alur, Karnataka State, India”

  1. Fantastic Mike. Good on you!
    I especially liked the tips on meditation .
    In the seminary I had a problem with so much of Jesus on the cross suffering for my sins.
    Hanging there morning after morning. All because of me on my way to bacon and eggs.
    # V interested me. For once you sounded unsure.
    I saw God about 500 times today in the sleet snow and howling nor’easter in Niigata. They were all either too fat too thin too Japanese too rude too big too small too not like me or was it that they were all – me? Mirrors in the blizzard.
    When you get back I wonder did you learn anything on what the whole game of life is all about – enlightenment – and anything other than the certitude of Rome and errance ( anew word) of those outside the church…my father’s favorite place at Sunday mass…kneeling on his cap in the very back hiding behind the baptismal font …a step away from a Camel, rather than father Feeney of our Boston years.
    A Pauline moment …or nde? Let us know Mike…the spiritual spark.
    Your article on the possibility of Jesus being illegitimate rang home giving me some belief on his historicity – and one of the long line of true adepts. Maybe one of the greatest…anointed.
    I wonder will our chaplain friends bless the new troop carrying Hellions from Christler’s new line? My guess Francis may have still missed the central point of the Secret of the Ages. But then maybe he is holding his fire. Waiting to hit the ball where they ain’t!
    Again Mike you are something special.
    I got the Purple Dragon from our friend Billy Brunner today, of all the old friends dead and alive from Milton…and the “something” of it all brought acidic tears.
    Safe journey home and keep up the good work.

    Happy Christmas
    Jim

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    1. Dear Jim: Again, I so appreciate these replies. You’re right about #5. I’m probably not as sure about things as it might appear. My family members do kid me about that heaven/hell theme #5 expressed. We’ll be heading home in about a week. I can hardly believe it. India has surely marked this last part of my life. It’s changed the way I breathe, exercise, meditate and generally see things — in the light of “the Universal Law of Impermanence.” Additionally, living inter-generationally (Peggy and I, my daughter and her family of four — and for the past 2 months with Peggy’s roommate from her college days — and just this past week with our 2 sons as well) has been formational. We love India and Mysore. I’ll be writing about that soon. Today I posted something on our wonderful visit to Varanasi. Thanks again, Jim.

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  2. Mike…

    Thanks for taking the time to share about this experience. I had no knowledge of the Vipassana practice…so your reflections contained some new insights for me. For example, I never considered the proposal that our bodies mirror the universe. The law of impermanence is another idea that I look forward to digesting.

    How do you sense your experience with Vipassana will influence your daily practice of passage meditation? I continue to find Easwaran’s meditation “program” to be of great value.

    Trevor

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    1. Trevor, so good to hear from you. In view of my Vipassana experience, I’ve decided to change my practice for a month — at least till the end of January. I’ve extended my morning and evening meditations to one hour each using the method I described in the blog. Also I am using Vipassana literature for my half hour of spiritual reading. Everything I learned in Alur is coincident with the teaching of Easwaran. At times, S,N. Goenka (the recently deceased teacher we watched on video each evening during the retreat) sounded like Easwaran. However, his claim was that while extremely good, methods like Easwaran’s do not go as deep as the one he was teaching. I’m experimenting to see if he was right. So far, so good.

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